The mother had once at a party met two English missionaries, who could not stop praising her then fifteen year old daughter's looks. "We cannot find such a flawless fair complexion in our own country," they had said, "nor such wonderfully green eyes." They volunteered to give the girls lessons in spoken English, and Tahmina and her sister soon developed correct pronunciation and accent and easy fluency.
Tahmina's mother had, despite all their hard times, succeeded in saving one set of jewellery each for her two daughters. The set was not so heavy, or commercially so valuable as it was in its incomparable old-world workmanship.
With difficulty she managed to get prepared for the dowry just four light silk gharara suits, stitched by the cheap tailor in the neighbourhood. Her daughter's beauty would set them off.
"There should be at least fifty-one suits, although even seventy-five are given. We gave our own daughters seventy-five suits each," pointed out the chachis, "and at least five of them should be heavy and expensive with gold embroidery. And have you not started buying the crockery and furniture for her?"
"We do not in our family believe in giving dowry," the mother answered calmly.
Then disaster struck. The publishers of her husband's second book, an erudite tract on the origin of an obscure language, reported that not a single copy had sold. They now demanded their money, which they had been promised out of the sale earnings. They started getting nasty and threatened to sue. Such a disgrace at such a juncture would wreck the chances of the marriage. There was nothing for it but to sell off the two sets, and to give her elder daughter only a very light thread-like gold chain, given to her by her aunt on her last birthday.
The bridegroom's party had to be accommodated under a tent. They were tactful enough not to talk of staying overnight. Instead of the three hundred members of the wedding party they had taken along for the elder son's wedding, they agreed, at the bride's family' request, to bring only fifty. The wedding dinner was very simple, but the menu was sophisticated and tastefully served. Tahmina's mother's sisters financed the meal, as they did the shamiana and other incidental expenses.
Tahmina wept on parting from her parents and sister, but the mother, hiding her own tears, reminded her of her great good fortune in marrying into such a high family. "Be an obedient daughter-in-law and a caring wife," she gave the injunction every mother gives to her departing daughter.
They returned in a reserved airconditioned First Class railway bogey for the family, and three other compartments for the rest of the party. At the other end there was waiting for them a huge throng of friends, well-wishers, attendants. Friends showered flowers on the bridal pair.
Tahmina had never seen such luxury, or even imagined it. She wished Maleeha were here to see her elder sister's great fortune. Poor Maleeha! She had not half her sister's good looks. Still, she would now try to find a good match for her also. She had heard the bridegroom had a younger unmarried brother. Her husband (she blushed at the word, even saying it mentally) would of course be totally under her control because of her rare good looks. She and her Prince Charming would be the envy of her catty cousins.
All the rustic women from the village owned by her father-in-law had come to the wedding house – out of feudal loyalty, of course, but even more so on account of the wild news of the bride's beauty. "Don't let everyone view her," the groom's mother whispered into her daughter's ear, "People can cast a 'nazar' or evil eye on our beautiful bride."
There was a stir as the father-in-law came with his dignified step into the room. Everyone moved aside for him. "This is your father-in-law," announced his wife to the bride. Tahmina made to rise, but he placed his rough hand on her covered head and restrained her. A sister-in-law lifted up a corner of the veil to let him see the bride's face. He marveled at her beauty. "May you and your husband always be happy," he prayed. He took out the diamond necklace he had kept for his second daughter-in-law, and told his daughter to put it round the lily-white neck.
The mother-in-law had gasped in disbelief when she saw the single light golden chain and the four suits made of the same material as that which she had given to all her maids.
She whispered the situation to her husband. "These village women, and even many of our relatives will want to see the dowry the bride has brought. How can I show them this?"
"Lock it away," he said, "and tell anyone who wants to see it that we do not in our family display dowry."
When Tahmina's parents came later to know of the incident, her mother said, "You can tell they have background." And she repeated her favourite statement, "Blood will tell."
It was late in the evening when the bride was taken to her room. They helped her to settle down on a silver-edged, carpet-covered low settee, supporting her still modestly bent back with overstuffed satin bolsters. They pointed out to her the dressing-table, the bathroom, and then they left her to wait for her groom.
"It's a fairy tale,' she mused, looking down on the broad ruby bracelets on her wrists. Of course it was her own snow-white, perfectly round wrists, she knew, that really set them off. On her fair slim ankles were matching anklets, in the earlobes matching long pendants drawing attention, if any were needed, to the beautiful face between. There were rings and gold bangles and a myriad of velvet cases of other jewellery piled up on the table beside her.
Everyone had been so kind. Her parents-in-law had even told her father that in case the bride would prefer to live independently, they would not in any way mind, but would provide the young couple with a house of their own choice.
Somebody tentatively made to open the door, and seemed to be intending to come in. Somebody dark and short and thin. A servant, no doubt. She said a warning 'Ahem' to stop him from approaching further.
The man hesitated, then came forward again. "Don't come in here," she ordered angrily.
He hesitated a second time, then resolutely entered, closing the door behind him.
"I am Shehzad, I am your husband," he said quietly.
She recoiled in shock. "No, no, you can't be! I had always dreamt my husband would be very handsome!"
"I am definitely not handsome, but I am definitely your husband," he answered, about to sit down beside her. "And you are more beautiful than anyone can describe."
She moved to the far end of the couch. "I had never imagined my husband would be so ordinary looking."
He winced as if she had struck him.
"I certainly cannot claim looks, but you will find me loving and faithful. How could I be otherwise with such a dreamlike lovely bride?" And he put out his thin dark hand to touch hers.
"Please don't!" she cried, getting up hastily and moving away. "I cannot possibly think of spending my whole life with such an unimpressive husband."
He turned away his head, but not before she glimpsed, what she was sure she was not mistaken in, an unmasculine moisture in his grey-brown eyes.
"Very well," he said, and going into the next room, he closed the door behind him.
"Good riddance," she murmured to herself, then settled down to sleep.
They did not disturb her till eight, when after a series of discreet knocks, the sisters-in-law came excitedly into the room, accompanied by a group of low-bending, salaaming maids bearing trays of fresh flowers.
"We hope you slept well – as much as our brother allowed you to!"
"We have brought you your change of clothes"
The maids prepared her bath, adding a bucket of steaming hot water to a copper bucket of cold water to achieve the right temperature. Near it they placed a heavy brass mug. Before she went inside the bathroom they undid the heavy pigtail, and afterwards they dried, then gently combed out, her luxuriant rippling hair with a silver-backed comb.
"Your hair, masha'Allah, masha'Allah, is so wondrously lovely, we are afraid of somebody casting an evil eye on it. We must cover it immediately."
Her mother had told the groom's parents that in their family it was the tradition for the bride to return for one day to her father's house the day following the wedding, and full arrangements had therefore been made for her journey back to her home town.
The usual regiment of servants accompanied her, but she had made it a point to go unaccompanied from the station to her house, her father having assured her he would be waiting for her on the platform. The in-laws understood. She did not want the servants, who are more snobbish that their masters, see the little impoverished flat.
Abba Jan was there in his in-laws' phaeton, trying not to show his awe at the fully reserved First Class compartment, and all her accompanying refreshments, cushions, etc.
She climbed the chipped, uneven stairs of their broken-down flat in her delicate new golden sandals, to the soft tinkle of her sparkling studded anklets. Her mother and sister were waiting excitedly. She entered the tiny dusty handkerchief-sized courtyard, and burst out into loud weeping. Throwing her arms round her mother's neck, she announced: "I am not going back."
The mother reeled under the shock.
"Why, what has happened? What did they do to you, my child?" asked the father. "Did they humiliate you on account of our lack of wealth?" Her father, always, as far back as she could remember, kindly and tolerant, seemed about to burst with indignation and rage.
"Are they unkind?"
"No, no one is unkind. But I am not returning. The man to whom I have been married is so unattractive, I cannot look on him as a husband. You have sold me, mother, you have sold me to an ugly looking man just for the money."
"But I have met him myself and talked to him," said her father, puzzled, "there is nothing wrong with him. He is short, and decidedly not fair, like the rest of their family, but so what?
"Does he have actual defects, like a squint, or a limp?" questioned Maleeha, as uncomprehending as her parents.
"I would not have cared for such misfortunes if he had been on the whole handsome. I would have forgiven him his limp if he had been Byron. But this person is so unattractive – so unimpressive – that it is impossible to imagine life with him."
"We girls saw him at the nikah, from behind the curtains. Although he had the 'sehra' covering his face, he removed it when he was giving his consent. We did not find anything repulsive about him. In fact, all my friends remarked that his family breeding showed from his face. He looks every inch an aristocrat."
"You are welcome to him, then," Tahmina crudely shouted at hers sister. "Ammi, I am NOT going back. I want a divorce."
Her mother gave her a stinging slap across the face. She had not done so for the last twelve years. "Don't you dare use that word in this house. And don't think you are so wonderful they cannot easily find another like you. But for you, such fortune does not come every day. All right, return to your dirty corner of our crowded room, and dream at nights of the wonderful life you gave up."
The father's face was also taut and severe. She could expect no sympathy from anyone here.
He woke her early and accompanied her back to the station in her grandfather's phaeton, which her mother's sisters had so thoughtfully sent, both to receive and take her back.
The whole way she brooded. Her in-laws all murmured that she was missing her mother and sister.
Abbaji and Ammi are so exhilarated at this match, they will never agree to a break-up. But the groom looked understanding. He had not tried to impose himself on her when she showed her aversion. He had quietly left the room. He seemed to realise the vast difference between them.
Supposing she requested him, to divorce her of his own accord? What could he do but agree? If he divorced her, not she him, she had been told she became entitled to the full 'mehr', which in this case was a princely sum. With this she could marry the most handsome boy she wanted.
She would approach him this very day.
"You wanted to talk to me?" he asked in surprise, when she had summoned him to her room. "I had the feeling you could not bear my company."
"No, please do not think that," she stated, genuinely penitent at her earlier unpardonable, boorish rudeness. "I am sorry I spoke so stupidly. I can sense that you are very kind and understanding, and you seem by nature to be sympathetic. That is why I am going to ask you for something, knowing you are so good you will not deny me what I want."
He waited, looking down.
"I want you to let me go."
"What is that supposed to mean?" he asked in genuine bewilderment.
"I want you to divorce me."
She again fancied she saw, as he turned his head away, a film or mist in his clear intelligent eyes.
"Yes, a divorce. One of my fiends had told me once that if the girl takes the divorce, she loses her claim to the 'mehr', but if the boy divorces her, he has to pay it in full."
"So you want to take the full amount of the mehr and use it to get married to a young, handsome boy instead of me?"
"Yes, yes." She had known he would see the point immediately. "I know you are so considerate you will not deny me my chance of happiness. I hope you will not be angry."
He could not have imagined such revolting selfishness, such brutal insensitiveness.
And he could not have believed how madly he desired her and would have done anything to make her happy.
"Of course, I will have to return the jewellery, or maybe not quite all of it –"
"We do not in our family take back what we have given," he stated absently.
"Oh, well, thank you. Then you will initiate the process immediately – today?"